A burgeoning Arnie rises to the challenge with a film that transcends cult status among action movie fans
A year after shooting to superstardom as a relentless cyborg assassin in James Cameron’s The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger would return with a bigger profile, bigger budget and bigger expectations. It wouldn’t prove a problem. Arnie had faced greater obstacles in his life, had achieved the kind of feats nobody could ever have imagined possible, leaving behind a small Austrian village of approximately 2000 people and earning the title of Mr. Universe by the time he was 20. This was the first of several bodybuilding awards that saw the future governor of California star alongside Incredible Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno in breakout documentary Pumping Iron, a movie that first endeared Arnie to the American public.
Arnie’s next logical step was into the realms of acting, but as 1969’s dissonant cult monstrosity Hercules in New York would attest, it wouldn’t prove easy. In fact, back before he broke into the mainstream as Conan the Barbarian, Arnie was told several times that he would never make it as a mainstream player. “I have to say that I’m very fortunate that I’ve had this extraordinary career. Not only in acting and in show business but also in bodybuilding,” he would explain. “That I was able to bridge over to acting even though the majority of people in Hollywood said it would never happen because of my accent, because of my body being overly developed, and because of my name — that [people] wouldn’t be able to pronounce. All those kinds of excuses. So, I did not listen to the naysayers and was just going after my vision. I was very happy it then worked out.”
Boy, are their faces red!
Forget your Seagals, your Van Dammes and even your Oscar-nominated screenwriters like Stallone, the action genre was epitomised by one man during the late-1980s, perhaps the biggest, most recognisable phenomenon in all of movie history, and his legacy will never be matched. Sure, his delivery was awkward, his acting as wooden as the biggest oak in the forest, but Arnie was box office, plain and simple, and if you couldn’t drag a passable performance out of him then producers were sure to find someone who could.
Directed by Mark L. Lester, Commando is an exercise in tongue-in-cheek hypermasculinity which has little time for insight or logic. This is bulging biceps, spurious espionage and moustachioed gymnasts twirling to their laughable demise as our hero bumbles his way through an entire army single-handed. In terms of errors in continuity, I could write a book, and protagonist John Matrix is so indestructible he’s able to take cover behind rose bushes without suffering so much as a scratch, utilising the kind of mindless gung-ho tactics that would have seen America conquered long ago if he were in fact the best in his field as so much exposition would have us believe.
The implausibility doesn’t stop with Matrix. Despite a catalogue of tactical errors on his part, the gang of mercenaries assigned to kidnap his daughter for their boss’s political desires are so careless you wonder why they were hired in the first place. The pre-credits set-up features so much illogicality it’s positively mind-boggling. Why would two trained assassins, dressed as garbage men, gun down a target at the crack of dawn in a heavily populated suburban area, a time when the majority of residents are quietly stirring their morning coffee? If they’d used silencers, maybe, but they use Uzis in an ostentatious display of violence that would have attracted crowds instantly, even stopping for a second unnecessary spray of bullets as their victim’s torso dances to the rhythm of two full clips.
In the next scene, one of those men assassinates another target in the middle of the afternoon, stealing a car, ramming him through a plate glass window and racing off into the busy afternoon traffic. That’s what you get for leaving the keys in the ignition of a showroom model, I suppose. In the opening’s final scene, the movie’s main heel is blown-up on a boat in a staged assassination that would have left anyone but Superman dead in the water. And why is he blown up anyway? None of the other mercenaries felt the need to stage their own deaths? Where does it get them in the end? As a kid, it always confused me, but at least it results in the priceless introduction of one of action cinema’s most ludicrous and watchable villains.
[A restrained Matrix sees a mysterious figure emerging from the sunlight]
Matrix: Bennett, I thought you were…
Bennett: Dead? You thought wrong. Ever since you had me thrown out of your unit, I’ve waited to pay you back. Do you know what today is, Matrix? Pay Day!
The introduction of Matrix is no less spurious. When we first meet him he is a fellow of simple pleasures, a retired woodsman who likes to share ice cream with his daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano) or hand-feed mountain deer so wild they casually eat from the giant’s hand and are obviously chained to a bush. But don’t let the bumbling dick-slap persona fool you, for when pushed Matrix is a one-man killing machine, an elite black-ops commando and not the listless dunderhead who appears onscreen. This man can smell, that’s right SMELL choppers approaching from a mile away, possessing a Jedi-like ability to snap a man’s neck on a crowded passenger plain and convince everyone that the guy is merely sleeping, informing the hostess that “He’s DEAD tired.” The opening shots of Arnie accentuate the one thing the actor had in abundance: muscles, and you best get used to seeing them in all of their bulging, vein-ridden hegemony. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti fetishiszes the movie’s star attraction to such a degree that it’s all just a little homoerotic, a hypermasculine meatfest dripping with the bigger is better philosophies of the Reagan 80s, and nobody personified that image quite like Schwarzenegger.
The movie’s homoerotic tone, one that has led many fans to believe that the movie is as chocked with gay subtext as Jack Sholder’s controversial horror Freddy’s Revenge, is further emboldened by star-crossed nemesis Bennett, a pudgy Freddy Mercury lookalike with a YMCA moustache and a penchant for chainmail vests. The character never looks capable of taking on our hulking protagonist, though his wild-eyed ravings and spurious macho spiel more than make up for it. Bennett is played by Australian actor and 80s mainstay Vernon Welles, a cult figure with a glorious ability to ham it up as the dastardly heel. Roles as a mutant biker in John Hughes’ surreal teen romp Weird Science and an immortal turn as Mel Gibson’s fiercest foe in 1981’s dystopian Mad Max sequel The Road Warrior, offer similarly over the top performances, but neither can hold a candle to Bennett for sheer magnetism.
Bennett is key to Commando‘s endurable charm, and whether purposeful or a simple byproduct of the muscle-obsessed 80s, it all derives from the suppressed homosexual attraction that seems to exist between our two adversaries, one that drips from every tensed muscle and quasi-impudent expression. In fact, so much sexual tension exists between the two that Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), seems almost peripheral as the film’s traditional love interest. It really is that flagrant. Just look at the relationship that exists between our two adversaries. Bennett is motivated by the kind of ‘if I can’t have you, you die’ attitude reserved for erotic thrillers such as Fatal Attraction. He talks as if he and Matrix are star-crossed, and he can be so intimate, playing with his knife as if polishing his penis with the semi-subdued madness of unrequited love.
Arius : Mr. Bennett, my soldiers are patriots.
Bennett : Your soldiers are nothing. Matrix and I can kill every single one of them…
[snaps his fingers]
Bennett : in the blink of an eye. Remember that.
Arius : Are you trying to… frighten me?
Bennett : I don’t have to try. When Matrix finishes the job, he’ll be back for his daughter. Now whether she’s alive or dead doesn’t matter. Then he’ll be after you. Now the only thing between you and Matrix [points to himself] is me.
Arius : It is YOU that is afraid, Mr. Bennett. YOU are afraid of Matrix.
Bennett : Of course. I’m smart.
Matrix is far less intimate when engaging with his sexually motivated scourge ― the projection of intimacy has never been the actor’s strong point ― but he often flaunts his sexuality as a means to lull his nemesis into a false sense of security. During their iconic final battle in the murky bowels of a South American hideaway (the kind inexplicably tinged with neon), Matrix turns up the flirtation in a thinly-veiled ruse to free his daughter. “Come on Bennett, throw away the chicken shit gun,” Matrix goads. “You don’t just want to pull the trigger, you want to put the knife in me, and look me in the eye and see what’s going on in there when you turn it.” Just watch Bennett’s reaction. He almost shoots his load, and I’m not referring to his pistol. Moments later, Matrix rips a phallic length of piping off the wall and launches it at Bennett, penetrating him in a not-so-subtle instance of physical innuendo. This after Bennett promised to shoot our hero not between the eyes, but BETWEEN THE BALLS!!!
It seems strange that a movie of this nature would harbour such a homosexual undercurrent, but it all makes perfect sense when viewed through the era’s sociopolitical lens. The 80s played host to the rising AIDS epidemic. Homosexuality, once a dirty secret suppressed by gay and straight men alike, was suddenly out in the open, and not in a flattering way. If bigots already felt validated in questioning the freedoms of practising homosexuals at a time when the nuclear generation were nearing curmudgeon territory, then the fear of a rapidly disseminating virus was enough for them to reach for the pitchforks. It amazes me how people can feel justified in questioning the personal freedoms of any living being, and under Reagan’s Christianity-propped right-wing philosophies, it all became just a little puritanical. Whether a bigot or not, there was something in the air back then, an irrational fear which intoxicated even the most liberal and passive. Aids had also infected the zeitgeist and homophobia was popping up everywhere. Whether purposeful or merely an accidental byproduct of the times, Commando could easily be read as ‘Bennett is the disease, Matrix the cure’.
Commando was Arnie’s first real test as a marquee attraction. He had more than held his own in the Conan movies, and The Terminator put him on the map as a truly mainstream draw. But both performances owed much to smart casting, each film utilising their leading man’s undesirable accent to positive effect, Schwarzenegger’s Teutonic sound befitting of both a character who reigned on the 10,000 B.C battlefields and a mechanical destroyer bereft of emotion. Cameron, in particular, exploited the actor’s positive and negative attributes to devastating effect, forging a colossal monster which thrived on a lack of humanity, something that Arnie’s thick eastern drawl and wooden movements further accentuated. In those movies, Arnie had exceeded all expectation, but now the actor had to impress as a somewhat established figure in a more generic action movie that wasn’t as acutely catered towards his strengths. He had the muscle, but you need more than muscle if you’re to survive as the genre’s marquee name.
Unsurprisingly, Arnie struggles through Commando at times, a fact made apparent by the film’s Director’s Cut, which as well as featuring extra expletives and acts of violence gives us a couple of character-building scenes that belong nowhere near such a testosterone-pumped action vehicle, at least not one starring Arnie at this stage in his career. Cindy is seriously underdeveloped in the theatrical cut of the movie, which, all things considered, was probably the right move. The two have absolutely zero romantic chemistry in a relationship that fails to conjure even a solitary kiss, her character relying more on the screenplay’s keen sense of gallows humour. Two of those deleted scenes go some way to building on that relationship, but Schwarzenegger is so unconvincing they’re better left out entirely. They last 91 seconds in total, but watching them you’d think they were five minutes long. A movie as gloriously and transparently ludicrous as Commando just doesn’t need them. The less baggage onboard the better.
It’s obvious that the screenplay had to make sacrifices for the actor’s lack of acting nous and clunky diction, with moments that resemble the famous scene in the Radioactive Man episode of The Simpsons. Sometimes, Matrix gives abrupt one-word responses or remains off-screen entirely. Other times he trips over his lines with such oafishness that it should be jarring, but in a self-aware film such as Commando he somehow pulls it off. There are whole communities dedicated to this film and the turn of it’s marquee name. Non-Arnie fans typically raise eyebrows whenever he is onscreen. Others wonder how on Earth he reached such heights based on his acting skills and sheer clumsiness. Arnie fans are just as perplexed by the fact that anyone couldn’t find him anything less than irresistible. To them, Arnie is special for exactly the reasons others find him unbearable. They just don’t make them like him, and in those terms Commando is arguably his most memorable film.
Commando is all ludicrous action sequences and infinitely quotable dialogue, thanks in large part to Steven E. de Souza, a screenwriter who can add the likes of 48 Hrs., The Running Man and Die Hard to an incredible catalogue of action movie classics. Part of Arnie’s growing appeal as a mainstream action presence was his plethora of one-liners, the kind that would become the actor’s calling card as he went from strength-to-strength, and de Souza was central to that. Commando, in particular, is so endlessly quotable you could add pretty much the entire script to the annals of cute quip immortality. Even lines that aren’t meant to be humorous come across as much due to the film’s gloriously overblown characters and hyperbolic action sequences. Those of you who have read this far will no doubt be a huge fan of arguably the biggest guilty pleasure of a decade crammed with them, so you’ll each have your favourites. Whether it’s something as simple as, “I lied!” or more elaborate tomfoolery like, “I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now, I’m very hungry!” there’s something so irresistible about this screenplay and the delivery of its main attraction, making Commando one of the most memorable pure action vehicles of its era.
Sully: You can’t kill me Matrix! You need me to find your daughter!
John Matrix: Where is she?
Sully: I don’t know. But Cooke knows, I’ll take you to where I’m supposed to meet him!
John Matrix: But you won’t.
Sully: Why not?
John Matrix: [holds the hotel key he stole from Sully that Cooke is staying at] Because I already know. Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last?
Sully: That’s right, Matrix! You did!
John Matrix: I lied.
I don’t know what it is about mid-80s Arnie, but he adds an extra dimension in this regard, even during his more innocuous moments. All those things that industry insiders had told him would work against him ― the thick Eastern drawl, the overly developed body, the wooden demeanour ― somehow worked in his favour. Arnie was impossible to take seriously as an actor back then, so a self-aware approach was the best way forward. His awkward delivery, his bumbling frame and borderline-clueless acting abilities, they all combined to forge the kind of inimitable presence never before witnessed. The man ran on sheer, unfathomable magnetism.
Whether reeling off de Souza zingers, failing to portray his so-called tactical genius or pulling off the kind of insane stunts that sling a steaming hot pipe at plausibility, Matrix is pure comedy gold. It doesn’t matter if he’s leaping hundreds of feet from an airborne plane into a knee-high puddle or simply bumbling about the place as his truck careens down a mountainside, Commando never fails to bring a smile to your face. Just watch the moment in the plane’s cargo area when Matrix is confronted by a pack of caged dobermans, or the moment in the mall where he ducks behind a post to avoid detection about three seconds too late ― just two of a plethora of perfunctory moments that ooze accidental hilarity.
Part of what makes Commando such an endlessly watchable experience is identifying all the continuity errors and senseless occurrences. When Matrix first comes under attack as Bennett and his cronies look to kidnap his daughter, he rushes to his high-security weapons storage unit, only the door is visibly unlocked, and even if it weren’t, it wouldn’t take long to crack the two-digit code. You could casually lean on the keypad and still have a chance of cracking it. When Matrix is arrested for bulldozing a weapons store for supplies on a curiously desolate LA street, Cindy uses a rocket launcher to surgically flip the truck, aiding Matrix’ escape without causing harm to anyone. The cops even forget to handcuff the psychopathic one-man army running roughshod over the city, which comes in rather handy as time runs out for his daughter.
A scene which sees Matrix pursue a cute little shit named Sully (David Patrick Kelly in irresistible form) features so many goofs it’s absolutely gobsmacking. While in pursuit, Matrix and Cindy crash head-on into a telephone pole at high speed without seat belts, but instead of leaving body parts strewn across the winding roads of the Hollywood Hills, the two exit without pausing for breath, barely a scratch on either. Bear in mind, Chong weighs roughly 100 lbs and they’re driving a convertible. Moments later, Matrix hangs Sully over a cliff by his ankle (the wire is plainly visible), letting him fall to his death and even allowing himself a curious peek over the edge as a ludicrous stunt dummy flails in the cool evening winds. Shortly after, Matrix flaunts his brawn by flipping Sully’s totalled car back onto it wheels. In the next shot, it’s a brand new vehicle, clean as a whistle.
Then you have the moral enigma that is Cindy. This girl has been kidnapped, thrown around, witnessed repeated acts of theft, battery and murder, and still she follows this absolute stranger unconditionally. She even escorts him to Arias’ offshore hideout in a stolen plane in a no fly zone where the retired Matrix graduates from multiple homicide to arguably the biggest act of mass murder committed by a single person, with the increasingly saucy Bennett as his main course. With a bit of back-to-basics exposition, we find out that Matrix had Bennett kicked off the force, and ever since that day he’s been waiting to pay him back. Thanks to exiled Latin American dictator, Arias, Bennett is finally given that opportunity. Arias wants to assassinate the president of his homeland and believes Matrix is the only man for the job, so much that he has concocted the kind of elaborate plan that is doomed to fail when he simply could have hired a sniper.
It’s all rather silly, but if you came here for logic you’re in the wrong place, because logic is kryptonite to a movie like Commando, a balls-to-the-wall action extravaganza that can be viewed ad nauseam without ever losing its charm. With it’s overblown action sequences, endlessly quotable dialogue, colossal fails in continuity and a superb cast who revel in the film’s ridiculous extravagances, Commando is the gift that keeps on giving, a movie I have seen countless times before, and will almost certainly see countless times again. Buoyed by James Horner’s surging score and Power Station’s thumping end credits salvo We Fight For Love, it is B-movie madness masquerading as big-budget extravaganza, a film that more than deserves its place among the pantheon of action immortals. Every time I reach for Commando I’m overcome with the kind of joy that transcends everyday nostalgia, that reminds me just how fun movies can be. It’s like connecting with an old friend who hasn’t changed one iota; it ‘feels good, just like old times’. In the realms of retro action cinema, Commando is the mountain that dreams are made of.